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eTown Time Capsule: Lost Legends of Bluegrass and Acoustic Music

We have a very special show for you this week! We dive into our archives once more to feature four Lost Legends of Bluegrass and Acoustic music. We will hear music and conversation from musical pioneers Doc Watson, John Hartford, Ralph Stanley, and Earl Scruggs. Nick Forster will also share some personal insight and stories from his shared experiences with these wonderful characters.

Doc Watson

Because Doc came to fame in the 1960s, after he had turned forty, it is easy to forget that he was born earlier (1923) than any of the other pioneers of bluegrass lead guitar:  Earl Scruggs (1924), George Shuffler (1925), Don Reno (1927), Dan Crary (1939), Clarence White (1944), or Tony Rice (1951).  Doc’s childhood musical influences pre-dated bluegrass.  Indeed, the young man listened to the very same 78 rpm records, radio broadcasts, and local live performances that shaped the founders of bluegrass.

Deep Gap is a pass in western North Carolina’s Blue Ridge mountains, named by Daniel Boone.  Doc was born and spent his entire life there.  Watauga County has a rich musical tradition (birthplace of country recording pioneer Al Hopkins) and is near to other old-time music heartlands in Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky.

In his first year of life, Watson lost his eyesight to an infection.  The sixth of nine siblings, he never lacked for companionship and was expected pull his weight around the home and farm.  The Watsons were a singing family.  His mother sang ballads around the house and to lull the children to sleep.  His father led shape-note hymns at the Mt. Patron Baptist Church.

Given a harmonica at age six, the boy devised a single-string accompaniment using a a steel wire stretched across the woodshed door.  When he was seven, the family acquired a wind-up record player and a large stack of old records.  His father made him a banjo at age eleven.  By then, Watson had entered the Governor Morehead School for the Blind at Raleigh.  There he was exposed to  classical and jazz music, including recordings by guitarists Django Reinhardt and Nick Lucas.

A friend at school taught him a few guitar chords.  Not knowing this, Watson’s father offered to help buy his son a guitar if he could learn to accompany himself on one song.  Doc’s first guitar was a twelve-dollar Stella, which he acquired at age thirteen.  About five years later, he financed his first Martin instrument by playing on the street for tips.  At a station in Lenoir, NC, an announcer mentioned that Arthel wasn’t a good radio name and a member of the studio audience shouted, “Call him Doc!”  The nickname stuck.

After his marriage to a neighboring fiddler’s daughter at twenty-four (Rosa Lee was sixteen), Watson tuned pianos to support his growing family.  Eddy Merle was born in 1949 and Nancy Ellen in 1951.  In 1953, Doc got a job playing electric guitar in a local country band.  Unable to afford two instruments, he traded his Martin for a Gibson Les Paul.  The group often lacked a fiddler and Watson taught himself fiddle tunes on the electric instrument, in addition to the popular finger-style music of Merle Travis and Chet Atkins.

Folklorist/musician Ralph Rinzler came to the Union Grove, North Carolina, Fiddler’s Convention in April, 1960.  There he rediscovered pioneer recording artist Clarence Ashley playing under the name “Tom” with a pick-up band that included Doc Watson.  Rinzler arranged for Ashley to record for Folkways.

Doc made several northern tours with Ashley.  Most folk venues lacked the budget for a full group, so in 1961 he began playing as a solo artist.  He traveled with Ralph Rinzler or by inter-city bus, performing at first with borrowed guitars.  He mined the song repertoires of his family, in-laws and neighbors for material that would be considered traditional, fresh, and interesting.  He went back into the old-time and blues records he had heard as a child and – for a time, at least – packed away the jazz, rock, and modern country for which he was best known locally.

Sensitive, complex, and capable in a range of fields (from rockabilly to electronics), Watson knew that the young, disoriented generation that came to his concerts and bought his records most warmed to that side of his personality that was fatherly, calm, and perfectly straightforward.  They loved the mountain man who could teach them about country ways in terms that were simple but clever, who could play with lightning speed and stunning precision, and who could educate them about this music and the people and places from which it arose.

Folk music artists at the time consisted mostly of elderly pioneer, revered but exotic and difficult to approach, and young urban revivalists.  Doc Watson stood out, an authentic folk musician who could entertain and relate to them as others – and their own fathers- couldn’t.  Doc was the hit of the 1963 Newport Folk Festival and quickly became a star, but was very different path from that of rural contemporaries who worked the Grand Ole Opry and the bluegrass circuit.

In the 1960s, Ralph Rinzler managed both Doc Watson and Bill Monroe, booking them into the same colleges, festivals, and folk clubs.  When Doc and Bill appeared together, they enjoyed recreating 1930s Monroe Brothers songs that Watson had memorized from 78 rpm records, and soon added this feature to their stage show.

In December of 1966 Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs invited Doc Watson to Nashville to add his widely popular flatpicking guitar to a Columbia album called Strictly Instrumental, issued under all three of their names.  Five years later, Watson was a participant with Scruggs, Jimmy Martin, Vassar Clements, his guitar hero Merle Travis, and other country music pioneers on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s first Will the Circle Be Unbroken.

Folk music faded as a commercial phenomenon, but Doc Watson was just hitting his stride as a performer and recording artist.  Freed from the pressures to make only traditional music, Doc brought modern elements back to his sound.  He also added other memebers to his ensemble, including T. Michael Coleman on electric bass, and after son Merle’s death in 1985, Jack Lawrence, Marty Stuart, and grandson Richard on second guitar.

In his eighth decade Doc Watson reduced his touring but was still a revered figure in American music.  Although he never represented himself as a bluegrass artist, he was a favorite with bluegrass fans, cited as a primary influence by all of the increasingly prominent flatpicking lead guitarists in the genre.  Just as he mined the repertoire of his predecessors, young artists are introducing Doc’s music to their generation.  Alison Krauss brought “Down in the Valley to Pray” to the 2000 movie O Brother; Where Art Thou? and “Your Lone Journey” to the Grammy-winning Raising Sand she recorded in 2008 with Robert Plant, an original member of Led Zeppelin.

Doc underwent colon surgery after a fall at his home in May, 2012.  He died a few days later at the Wake Forest Medical Center in Winston-Salem, NC, at the age of eighty-nine.

Fred Bartenstein is a bluegrass music historian and journalist.

John Hartford

John Hartford was born John Cowan Harford (the “t” in Hartford was added later by record producer Chet Atkins), in New York City on December 30, 1937. The son of a medical doctor, John grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, where he acquired a love for music and the Mississippi River.

John’s parents loved to square dance, both to recorded and live music. By his early teens, John was fiddling and played for a few dances. A 1953 release by Flatt & Scruggs of an instrumental called “Dear Old Dixie” forever transformed his life. In June of that year, shortly after hearing the tune on the radio, fifteen-year old John saw the band in person at Chain of Rocks Amusement Park in St. Louis. He was especially taken by the sounds of the banjo and fiddle, as played by Earl Scruggs and Benny Martin. With the assistance of local fiddle legend Gene Goforth, John tried to emulate Martin’s style of fiddling. With a set of finger picks, he also worked at the Scruggs style of banjo playing.

In the 1950s, John worked with several groups, including the Mississippi Valley Boys, Missouri Ridgerunners and the Dixie Ramblers, which also included future Bluegrass Hall of Fame members Doug and Rodney Dillard.

From 1958 until 1963, John was part a group known as Don Brown and the Ozark Mountain Trio. The band gained quite a bit of prominence locally and had radio shows on several stations, a lot of television work, and even scored an appearance on the Ernest Tubb Midnight Jamboree in Nashville. With the Trio, John made his first recordings four songs that were cut as part of a various-artists gospel album put together for, St. Louis radio station KXEN.

In 1963 John left the Trio to work in record distribution, promotion, and as a disc jockey. At WHOW in Clinton, Illinois, he reconnected with Red Cravens and the Bray Brothers, whom he had met at Bill Monroe’s Brown County Jamboree Park in the late 1950s. John performed in various configurations with these musicians and Pat Burton. In the 1970s Hartford produced two albums of their early and classic radio programs.

A move to Nashville in 1965, to take a job at radio station WSIX, set in motion a series of events that put John’s career on an upward trajectory. Newly in town, he signed as a songwriter with the Glaser Brothers publishing concern, who in turn landed a deal for him with RCA as a recording artist. From 1967 to 1971, during the folk music boom, he released six albums and several singles for the label, including his composition, “Gentle on My Mind.” He also began doing work as a solo performer. Several of his RCA recordings made it to the Smothers Brothers, who were riding high with their popular comedy/variety TV show. Soon, John found himself in Los Angeles as a writer for the program, as well as for the show’s spin off, The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour.

It was John’s association with Glen Campbell that put him on the map. While John’s earlier recording of “Gentle on My Mind” had charted modestly in the Billboard country charts and had been covered by a few other artists, it was Campbell’s 1969 release that turned it into a mega success. It became the most-played country song of 1969, and won four Grammy awards that year, two of which went to John and two to Campbell. The song has since been recorded at least 400 times by artists including Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin, Frank Sinatra, Lou Rawls, Tammy Wynette, and Waylon Jennings. According to BMI, the song has been played at least six million times on the air. The biography on his website notes, “Hartford often said that ‘Gentle on My Mind’ bought his freedom.”

1971 was a busy year for John. He moved from RCA to Warner Brothers, where his first release, Aereo-Plain, became an instant classic. Along with Vassar Clements, Norman Blake, and Tut Taylor, the Aereo-Plain Band (which Hartford dubbed the Dobrolic Plectral Society in honor of Taylor’s unusual style of flat-picking the Dobro) artfully moved bluegrass in a new direction. Sam Bush noted, “Without Aereo-plain, there would be no ‘newgrass’ music.” The foursome enjoyed a brisk season on the summer festival circuit. The same year saw the publication of the first of John Hartford’s two books, Word Movies, a collection of his original lyrics and poems.

The following year, John recorded and toured with Norman Blake. The follow-up LP to Aereo-Plain, called Morning Bugle, also featured jazz bass master Dave Holland.

While advancing his music career in the late 1960s and early 1970s, John also pursued his other love the river. Having previously worked as a deckhand on towboats and the Delta Queen, he spent three years working toward a pilot’s license that would enable him to operate riverboats on inland waterways. Starting in 1973, he worked on the Julia Belle Swain, pulling 10 days of duty each month between Memorial Day and Labor Day. His love of the river and experiences as a riverboat pilot no doubt contributed greatly to his Grammy-winning 1976 release for Flying Fish called Mark Twang.

Over the next quarter century, John released nearly thirty recorded projects, mostly solo recordings. The Chicago-based Flying Fish label was home to the largest share of these releases. Other outlets included Rounder, his own Small Dog a-Barkin’, Acoustic Disc, Dot, Blue Plate, and even the Children’s Book-of-the-Month Club.

John’s association with Flying Fish extended from 1976 to 1991. In all, he had eleven projects released on the label. These included several reunions with his old picking buddies from Missouri, Doug and Rodney Dillard (Glitter Grass from the Nashwood Hollyville Strings); with Vassar Clements and Dave Holland, who both recorded with him in the early ‘70s on Warner Brothers (Vassar Clements, John Hartford, Dave Holland); and a pairing of John with his son, Jamie (Hartford and Hartford). During this era, John helped to resurrect the career of his fiddling hero Benny Martin, incorporating him on a number of the Flying Fish projects and playing on Martin’s own Tennessee Jubilee.

The Rounder releases included another reunion with Doug and Rodney Dillard (Permanent Wave), a coupling with old-time banjoist Bob Carlin (The Fun of Open Discussion), two solo outings (Wild Hog in the Red Brush and The Speed of the Old Long Bow), two projects with the Hartford String Band (Good Old Boys and Hamilton Ironworks), and a collection of out-takes and jam sessions from the 1971 Aereo-Plain project (Steam Powered Aereo-Takes).

The 1980s were busy years for John. He was working 150 to 200 dates per year as a solo, often accompanied by his wife Marie and two drivers. He showcased his fiddle, guitar, and banjo talents and incorporated an additional percussive sound on a number of selections by dancing on a piece of amplified plywood. The practice became a trademark of his live performances. In addition to musical tour dates, he worked as a riverboat pilot during the summer months.

In 1986, the second of John’s books was published, Steamboat in a Cornfield. Aimed primarily at young readers, the book documented the grounding, and subsequent re-floating, of the steamboat Virginia in circa 1910. One reviewer cited Hartford’s style for the narrative as a “ballad-like poem.”

John augmented his touring, recording, and writing activities by helping with adding music and narration to the 1990 The Civil War series, produced by Ken Burns for PBS. A year later, he wrote and hosted a special for the Nashville Network called Fiddles, Banjos, Riverboats, subsequently released as a home video.

In 1991, John founded his own label, Small Dog a-Barkin’, and released six of his own projects as well as three by other artists. Titles released on the label included Cadillac Rag (1991), Goin’ Back to Dixie (1992), The Walls We Bounce Off Of (1994),

Old Sport (with fiddler Texas Shorty, 1994), Live at College Station Pennsylvania (1995), and No End of Love (1996).

John’s last recorded triumph came in 2001 with the release of the O Brother! Where Art Thou? soundtrack. He received his fourth Grammy for his part of the project and participated in the highly successful Down From the Mountain tour. It was while on this tour that John was forced to retire, due to complications from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He battled the disease for twenty-one years and succumbed to it on June 4, 2001. At the time of his passing, he was working on the manuscript to a third book, a biography on old-time fiddler Ed Haley.

Gary Reid is a bluegrass music historian, journalist, producer, and actor based in Roanoke, Virginia.

Ralph Stanley

After graduating from high school in May of 1945 at the age of 18, Ralph Stanley was inducted into the army. He served a year with the occupation forces in Germany. His administrative talents were recognized there and he was urged to reenlist but decided instead to study veterinary medicine. As he arrived home, Ralph was taken by his father directly from the railroad station to a radio broadcast in Norton, Virginia, where he performed with his brother and Roy Sykes and the Virginia Mountain Boys. Carter Stanley and Pee Wee Lambert soon left that band to form the Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys.

Ralph began playing banjo in a two-finger style reminiscent of Wade Mainer. He heard the emerging three-finger style from Snuffy and Hoke Jenkins, and adapted a distinctive variant in 1948, while both the Stanley Brothers and Flatt and Scruggs were appearing on WCYB, Bristol.

Ten years of regional stardom followed, centered on WCYB radio’s daily “Farm and Fun Time” radio program. The Stanley Brothers were picked up by national labels Columbia, and Mercury, but found themselves unable to break out of performance circuits where bluegrass was most accepted: North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia; and areas where Appalachians migrated for employment in Ohio, Michigan, Maryland, and Pennsylvania.

1958 brought major changes in the Stanleys’ career. They moved to Live Oak, Florida, and founded the Suwanee River Jamboree, and soon picked up a television and radio circuit for the Jim Walter Homes Corporation. That year they began recording for Starday and King, labels focused on ethnic niches overlooked by mass media. Ralph managed the band’s business affairs and, as Carter’s health began to fail, found himself increasingly fronting the band as lead singer and master of ceremonies.

The Stanley Brothers were discovered by new audiences, not only in the deep south, but in cities, at colleges, and in Europe, as the folk music boom of the early ‘60s spread. In 1965, they drove up from Florida for the first multi-day bluegrass festival in Fincastle, Virginia. Carter’s death in December of 1966 came before the festivals grew into a viable performance circuit.

Ralph faced a true dilemma as he entered his forties. Should he change careers in order to better provide for his growing family? Or should he revamp the Clinch Mountain Boys? King Records’ Syd Nathan and the fans urged the latter course, and soon Ralph was running the roads again, in a station wagon with Curly Ray Cline, Melvin Goins, and a 19-year-old Larry Sparks. In April of 1968, Ralph moved from Florida back to his childhood home, where he began a Memorial Day bluegrass festival in 1971.

In 1970, Ralph and the band (Roy Lee Centers, Curly Ray Cline, and Jack Cooke) were late to a show in West Virginia. As he arrived, he heard 15-year-olds Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley filling in with songs of the early Stanley Brothers. Recognizing both their love for his music and amazing talent, Ralph Stanley added the two teenagers to the group for two summers and whenever else they could get away from school.

Ralph Stanley mentored many other fine musicians over the years, including guitarists Ricky Lee, Junior Blankenship, Charlie Sizemore, Sammy Adkins, Tony “Renfro” Profitt, James Alan Shelton, and (son) Ralph Stanley II; mandolinists Ron Thomasson, John Rigsby, and (grandson) Nathan Stanley; fiddlers James Price, Todd Meade, and Dewey Brown; and banjo picker Steve Sparkman.

An endless string of recordings emerged on King, Rebel, Columbia (again) and numerous smaller labels. The Clinch Mountain Boys have headlined for the entire four decades of bluegrass festivals. The movie “O Brother Where Art Thou” (2000) brought Ralph Stanley’s music to the largest audiences of his career, and led to a Grammy award for “Oh Death.”

After performing professionally in seven decades, the octogenarian is beginning to slow down a bit. Son Ralph Stanley II heads the Clinch Mountain Boys on a number of their dates. But Ralph, Sr. can still be heard on the Grand Ole Opry and major concert events. His career is well-documented in the Ralph Stanley Museum on the Crooked Road at Clintwood, Virginia, and in a 2009 autobiography coauthored with Eddie Dean.

Fred Bartenstein is a bluegrass music historian and journalist.

Earl Scruggs

A mild-mannered North Carolinian from a mill town would strike few as a world-renowned, influential musician and composer. Earl Scruggs, once compared to violinist Niccolo Paganini, not only pioneered the three-finger banjo but played it to standards of taste and technique unmatched by thousands of disciples over seven decades. He was an important figure in the birth of the bluegrass genre, and also brought his artistry to the fields of country, folk, and rock, to college campuses, and to television and the movies.

Earl Scruggs’ father was an old-time banjo player, but died when Earl was four. Older brother Junie, who also played banjo, had moved out on his own before Earl developed his early musical interests into a style around 1934. Brother Horace, a guitarist, and neighbor Dennis Butler, a fiddler, were the young man’s earliest jamming partners. By the age of 13, he had purchased his own banjo and by 15 he was performing professionally on the radio. Music and millwork alternated until Scruggs decided to become a professional performing artist at the end of World War II.

After a brief stint with “Lost” John Miller and the Allied Kentuckians, which brought him to Nashville, Earl Scruggs auditioned and was accepted by Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys. Lester Flatt, Chubby Wise, and Howard Watts, Earl and Bill made up the classic edition of that band between summer, 1945, and spring, 1948. Surviving airchecks from Grand Ole Opry performances document the electrifying effect the act had upon audiences. The warmest ovations greeted Earl’s radically new banjo solos — the loudest, fastest, and smoothest anyone had ever heard. Announcer George D. Hay took to giving “Earl Scruggs and his fancy banjo” equal billing with bandleader Bill Monroe.

Tired of the constant touring, Flatt and Scruggs resigned and decided to seek local radio work in a succession of southern markets. They built a band called the Foggy Mountain Boys (named after a Carter Family song, “Foggy Mountain Top”), and populated it mostly with fellow alumni of the Blue Grass Boys. Mercury and Columbia recording contracts were negotiated, and the banjo was prominently featured on 78 and 45 rpm singles released just as DJ radio and jukeboxes came into popularity. The band worked territories around Danville, Virginia; Hickory, North Carolina; Bristol, Virginia/Tennessee; Lexington, Kentucky; Tampa, Florida; Roanoke, Virginia; Raleigh, North Carolina; Knoxville, Tennessee; and Richmond/Crewe, Virginia – spawning banjo enthusiasts and future banjo stars at every stop.

In 1955, at radio sponsor Martha White Mills’ insistence, the Foggy Mountain Boys were added to the Grand Ole Opry roster and were henceforth based in Nashville. Prominent members of the band included guitarists Jim Eanes and Mac Wiseman; mandolinists Curly Seckler and Everett Lilly; fiddlers Benny Sims, Benny Martin, and Paul Warren; bassists Jody Rainwater and Jake Tullock; and Dobro player Josh Graves. Ironically, given their earlier desire to reduce touring, Flatt and Scruggs did the most traveling of any Opry act in the 1950s, covering both live performances and a circuit of radio and television stations in the days before technology supported syndication. Widely popular for an energetic and thoroughly rural style centered on Earl’s riveting banjo, they thrived during the early rock ‘n roll era when many of their bluegrass and country contemporaries struggled.

Shrewd business manager Louise Scruggs helped Flatt and Scruggs to capitalize upon a string of important opportunities. These included the sound track and appearances in television’s “Beverly Hillbillies,” concerts at colleges and other venues associated with the folk music boom, capitalization on use of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” in the movie “Bonnie and Clyde,” and material from new songwriters such as Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Tom T. Hall, and Utah Phillips on the band’s Columbia LPs. Earl’s growing interest in new musical genres and in performing with sons Gary, Randy, and Steve led to a parting of the ways with Lester Flatt in 1969.

For a decade, the Earl Scruggs Revue was a popular act, mostly in youth markets, including scores of college appearances. Musicians such as Charlie Daniels, Jody Maphis, Josh Graves, Vassar Clements, Lea Jane Berinati, and a procession of musical celebrities enhanced the long-haired sons’ country rock. Banjo icon Earl Scruggs remained the center of audience and media attention, changing his style very little. Health challenges led to Earl’s retirement from the road in the late 1970s.

The public never lost its fascination for Earl Scruggs. Jam sessions at Earl and Louise’s house in Madison, Tennessee, continued to attract the A-list of performers from bluegrass and related genres throughout the eighties and nineties. Occasional guest appearances with artists like Ricky Skaggs and Tom T. Hall kept him in the recording game. In 1997, bolstered by recent advances in pharmaceuticals and medical care and a huge market demand, Earl decided to accept a limited number of personal appearance dates, media appearances, and CD projects. All have been hugely successful. Widowed at the age of 82, Earl Scruggs continued to receive accolades from new generations as well as surviving contemporaries from the dawn of the bluegrass era.

Fred Bartenstein is a bluegrass music historian and journalist.